Moments in Memory: Hamilton Place 'completely changed the direction of the city'

Moments in Memory: Hamilton Place 'completely changed the direction of the city'

July 21st, 2019 by Davis Lundy in Local Regional News
Both upper and lower levels are crowded with shoppers on Black Friday inside Hamilton Place Mall.

Both upper and lower levels are crowded with...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Editor's note: This is part of an ongoing series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. To read more, visit timesfreepress.com/150years.

John Foy started working for CBL & Associates before it was CBL. He joined Moses and Charles Lebovitz's seven-year old shopping center and commercial real estate development company named Independent Enterprises in 1968.

When Foy retired after more than four decades in 2012, he left as vice-chairman of the board and highly regarded in the Chattanooga financial and business circles. Foy was rarely the executive "out front" at CBL; instead, he was standing right behind Lebovitz as CBL grew into one of the country's largest mall and strip center developers.

Lebovitz said in 2012 that Foy set a "culture within the CBL organization of integrity and excellence that will continue to guide our progress into the future."

Foy, now 75, sits in the offices of Noon Development in the Volunteer Building. His new business is the same as his old business, providing a team of people to develop commercial real estate that is financially successful for property owners and tenants.

He considers the impact of "the mall" on the Chattanooga region for 15-20 seconds and simply offers,

"Hamilton Place completely changed the direction of the city."

***

The story behind the Chattanooga Times (25 cents ) and News-Free Press (25 cents) the week that Hamilton Placed opened really wasn't the content in both newspapers. It was the advertising. Both newspapers were inundated with full-page ads from Loveman's and Parisians, two departments stores that would open on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 1987. Six would eventually locate at the mall.

The morning Times and afternoon News-Free Press were part of a joint operating agreement in 1987, meaning that the business functions of the newspapers, including selling advertising, operated as one while the two newsrooms operated independently.

The publishing company worked with CBL and printed a special section in both newspapers the day before the opening. But it wasn't a single special section. It was more than special because there were 36 pages of content and advertising spread out across three consecutive sections of the paper.

"HAMILTON PLACE MALL OPENS WED" the News-Free Press banner headline read on the afternoon before the 9:30 a.m. ribbon cutting.

"Today's the day" was the headline of the morning Times on Wednesday.

Business Editor John Vass Jr. covered the mall opening for the News-Free Press and said, "Described by Mayor Gene Roberts as a symbol of the soaring spirit of this community, Hamilton Place Mall became a key part of this city's retail scene today."

Times business writer Dave Flessner, currently the business editor of the Times Free Press, captured Mayor Roberts in another context. What would be the largest mall in Tennessee, the $120 million project was built in a year by EMJ Construction, and Roberts reportedly said of it: " 'This may be the greatest feat since the Empire State building went up in 13 months.'"

Times Free Press columnist Mark Kennedy, wrote the reaction story for the Times' readers on Aug. 6. He said, "Remember all the people who said they wouldn't dare go near Hamilton Place Mall until the grand opening rush was over?

"Well, somebody broke a promise.

"By mid-morning Wednesday, the 6,000-space parking lot at Hamilton Place was packed. Parking was so tight that new arrivals where shouting at exiting shoppers, 'Can I have your parking place?'"

Lee Anderson said in a News-Free Press editorial, "The positive impact upon our community is beyond measure. This is a magnificent step of progress for Chattanooga."

Mike Loftin and Pat Wilcox of the Times' editorial page said on Aug. 6, 1987, "This hometown firm (CBL) has made an investment in Chattanooga which reflects a strong confidence in our community's future and will make a significant contribution to ensuring it is a bright one."

Bill Casteel was a highly respected journalist for the Times for more than 30 years and wrote columns three days a week on the local front for decades. His humorous and cynical writing style made his columns must-read content for readers, especially local politicians. Casteel, who died in 2016, added his view of the opening on Hamilton Place on Aug. 5, 1987.

"The Hamilton Place Mall grand opening will be held this morning and despite efforts to downplay the occasion, I believe it's going to be bigger than First Monday in Scottsboro, the grand opening of the Fourth Avenue Flea Market and Hot Hubcap Haven and the Miss Suck Creek Beauty Pageant and Hog-Colling Contest all rolled into one.

"Everybody and her sisters will be there. So will be the politicians."

He added a few paragraphs later, "As of 3 p.m. Tuesday, I hadn't met a man I didn't like or a woman who wasn't planning to be on the mall parking lot by 6 a.m. today, her cash and credit card at the ready."

Casteel said he was going to adjust his schedule and attend the opening, but several things made him concerned, including that he had been told that WRCB would be "breaking into their regular programming today with hourly updates on the casualty count on Shallowford Road."

He concludes, "Sorta makes me glad that I'm already committed to addressing today's downtown convention of Maytag repairmen."

***

Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield was the newly elected Chattanooga public works commissioner when Hamilton Place opened. He was there for the opening and black tie gala held inside the mall on Aug. 4, 1987. The Times Free Press said this of then-Mayor Littlefield in 2012, on the 25th anniversary of Hamilton Place: "Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield, then the city's public works commissioner, said he remembers being at the mall's opening ceremony in August 1987 dressed in a new tuxedo. 'I was wondering where it was all going to lead.'"

Littlefield has his answer today.

"It created a completely new center of commerce in Hamilton County," said Littlefield. "There's a term in urban planning called 'favored corridor.' Hamilton Place cemented the east and northeast of what we traditionally called Chattanooga [as] the favored corridor for the next few decades."

Hamilton Place and the development that exploded around it over the past 32 years serve a population of 729,017 and 284,535 households within 25 miles of its location off Interstate 75, according to Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce data.

More than 2 million people utilize Hamilton Place annually. The area generates more than $2 billion of retail sales annually and employs more than 17,000 people. Including the mall's 1.3 million square feet, the Hamilton Place campus has more than 2 million square feet of retail space.

Foy looks at the long run of Hamilton Place as the classic mall with large, well-known department store anchors with satisfaction because of its impact on the city, but also looks forward to what it will be a decade from now as it transitions from the classic mall to a multi-use facility.

"We were carried away at that time with the idea that we didn't want another mall, so we brought in all the big department stores," said Foy. "It worked for a long time, and then Amazon came along."

Foy, who currently serves on EPB's board of directors and on the UC Foundation, said a lot of pieces had to fall together during the mid-1980s when Hamilton Place was in the development process.

"Everything had to fit together," said Foy. "Putting together the land, the finances, the leasing and the access off the interstate had to come together to make the project work."

CBL, which developed both Northgate and Eastgate malls, announced in May the beginnings of moving into a "town center" format for its existing malls. After Sears closed, the company is repurposing the 150,000 square feet on two floors at the south end of Hamilton Place. Most of the bottom floor will be the new home of Dick's Sporting Goods as it moves from across Gunbarrel Road to the mall campus. The top floor will include a restaurant, entertainment venues and office space.

"It just makes sense," said Foy of the move to multi-use facilities. "But look at all that is out there today. Hamilton Place did what it was envisioned to do."

Contact Davis Lundy at davislundy@aol.com.


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